West Key Number Update Keeps Pace with the Legal Landscape

June 12, 2013

WestlawNextOne of the remarkable features of the West Key Number System (Key Numbers) is its careful balancing of consistency and continuity with change. You can–and plenty do–still use it in exactly same way lawyers did a century ago, by pulling print digests and reporter volumes off the shelves and working from the headnotes classified under the relevant Key Numbers in the digests to the corresponding cases in the reporter volumes. Or, with Westlaw Classic, you can add Key Numbers to your queries, making them far more powerful and precise than mere word searching could ever be. And now, you can reap the benefits of Key Numbers effortlessly through WestlawNext, which integrates the Key Number System into its search engine at the deepest level.

But this versatility doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of careful and rigorous editorial work to keep the Key Number System attuned to ever-evolving law without sacrificing our long history of quality and consistency –to maintain a bridge between the 19th and 21st centuries that can be easily traveled in both directions. As part of this work, Thomson Reuters Westlaw attorney-editors choose several Key Number topics each year to revise and enhance. Most recently, we tackled Statutes and Social Security.

The topic Statutes (Topic Number 361) is largely devoted to headnotes about statutory construction, and there are a lot of them–over half of the topic’s nearly 400,000 headnotes, in fact. The prior scheme for classifying these had been in place mostly unchanged since the inception of the Key Number System, and thus we saw an ideal opportunity for expansion and reorganization. So we increased the amount of Key Number lines in this area by more than 50% (from 154 Key Numbers to 233) and reworked the scheme around such central concepts as intent, purpose, plain language, and ambiguity. We also moved thousands of headnotes about the Chevron doctrine and other aspects of administrative construction of statutes to a new section in the topic Administrative Law and Procedure (15A). The remainder of the topic, which deals primarily with the technical aspects of statutory enactment, amendment, and repeal, was thoroughly overhauled as well, and we transformed the single Key Number that had covered lobbying into nine Key Numbers in a new topic called Lobbying (244H). Throughout the project we made a special effort to ensure that headnotes about particular statutes got classifications to other relevant topics throughout the Key Number System.

The topic Social Security (356H) has a long history of its own. First created in the early 1950’s as the topic Social Security and Public Welfare (356A), its scope initially extended beyond Social Security to most other forms of public assistance. When the Medicare and Medicaid programs came on the scene and began generating a wealth of case law, we created extensive Key Number developments for them in a new topic called Health (198H). Later, Unemployment Compensation got a topic of its own (392T). Last summer we inaugurated yet another new topic, Public Assistance (316E), to take food stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits, state welfare programs, and the like. This spring it was finally Social Security’s turn.

The Social Security system provides retirement benefits, of course, but a striking development in recent years has been the explosion in Social Security disability claims, and that’s where our reclassification work mainly focused. We more than doubled the amount of Key Number lines devoted to disability issues (from 37 Key Numbers to 77). And since this is a heavily administrative area of law, we greatly enhanced the topic’s treatment of procedural and review matters. Nevertheless, we took pains not to neglect retirement, old age, and survivor’s benefits. For example, we created a Key Number, 356Hk101(4), specifically for posthumous children–an issue that was before the Supreme Court just last year in Astrue v. Capato ex rel. B.N.C., 132 S.Ct. 2021.

To implement these changes, we spent about a year developing the new topic outlines, reviewing over 550,000 headnotes, and reclassifying more than 480,000 of them. And the size of this project was by no means atypical–they are always pretty mammoth undertakings. But we know that’s what it takes to keep the Key Number System in its unparalleled position among legal research tools–in 2013 just as much as 1913.